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Best shot at beating Saints: Don't punt

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints never did bother to punt the ball during their show of force, a 45-28 wild-card round victory over the Detroit Lions on Saturday.

Partly because the Lions couldn't stop them (other than two fumbles) as the Saints put up a playoff-record 626 total yards and Drew Brees tossed for 466 himself. And partly because Sean Payton wouldn't give them the chance – three times he successfully went for it on fourth down, showing a confident aggression this team thrives on.

The question is whether the Lions should've ever bothered to punt?

New Orleans' offense is dizzying right now; a ridiculous blend of power and finesse. The Saints get the ball and they go down the field, one long, purposeful scoring drive after the next.

The only chance Detroit had was in keeping the ball from the Saints. This isn't a criticism of the Lions, who played the percentages of traditional football just fine. It's just that maybe against the Saints, especially here in the Superdome in this era of pyrotechnic NFL offenses, tradition needs to go out the window.

How about everything is four-down territory? Or the concept that field position doesn't really matter in an offensive era where those 40 yards are routinely made up in a couple of plays?

[ Related: Ref's whistle costs Lions a defensive TD ]

Go ahead and punt when you're facing fourth down deep in your own territory or some impossibly long distance. The rest of the time, line up and call a play.

"I would try to keep the ball away from us in any way possible," fullback Jed Collins said. "Field position isn't a huge factor in what we're doing.

"Wherever we start from we just see the open field, where the end zone is," Collins continued. "That's kind of our team joke: We're always going in. We're always going in to score whether we're on our 10-yard line or the opponent's 10-yard line."

Collins wasn't the only Saint who saw it that way, although many of his teammates scoffed at the notion that field position isn't a big deal.

"It'll matter next week," said offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod, looking toward a road game against the San Francisco 49ers, who had the best total defense in the NFC.

Then again, Bushrod could see the point on a night like this, when Drew Brees would complete 33 of 43 passes and the ground game would churn out 167 yards.

"Sometimes you get in games, especially when we're playing at home and we can get our offense in a rhythm, maybe field position doesn't matter," Bushrod said.

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There's been a slew of statistical studies that suggest NFL teams are too conservative on fourth down, that not only are they likely to earn the first down, but giving up the ball is a more negative play than coaches realize. And that's even when they aren't facing an offense like New Orleans or Green Bay or New England.

"Basically it's because of loss aversion," said L. Jon Wertheim, the co-author of the book "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won," a sort of "Freakanomics" for sports.

"We hate losing more than we like winning and therefore make decisions, sometimes irrationally, to avoid loss," Wertheim said. "NFL coaches are almost comically conservative on fourth down. A Cal economist [David Romer] did a study that we replicated in 'Scorecasting' and found that more than 90 percent of the time, NFL coaches make the suboptimal choice on fourth down when they punt.

"From doctors to portfolio managers, imagine another industry where the decision makers could fail to maximize your chance of success 90 percent of the time and we wouldn't mind. But conventional wisdom says that you punt after three downs and coaches would rather be wrong than take heat from bucking conventional wisdom."

Watching the Lions' defense Saturday was the visual definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Detroit was trying but it couldn't stop New Orleans.

Just to repeat, we're talking about 626 yards.

"Lots of kickoffs, not a lot of punts," Brees said. "That's what we like to do around here."

The Lions kept pinning the Saints deep in their own territory and it never seemed to matter. Discounting turnovers and Detroit's fourth-quarter failed onside kick, the Saints' average starting field position on the other seven possessions was at about their own 16-yard line.

Detroit won the field-position game. Only New Orleans taking a knee spared them from giving up 50-plus points anyway.

[ Related: Favre shows up a spectator at Superdome ]

To be fair, there was really nothing the Lions were going to do to win this game (they punted just three times). The Saints were just better. Going forward though, do teams have to consider playing defense with their offense?

Payton said his decisions to go for it on fourth down were "a sign of confidence" in his offense and a general go-for-the-throat philosophy. It also, however, did just what Saints opponents should aspire to do: it kept a hot quarterback in Matthew Stafford off the field. The Lions had 412 total yards on the night.

"Sean Payton plays the numbers better than most," Wertheim said. "Remember the onside kick he ordered to start the second half of SB 44? When you buck conventional football wisdom you're not making the statically optimal choice in a lot of cases; the element of surprise is on your side, too."

An offensive game plan that assumes you'll go for it on fourth adds an additional element also. It increases the options on the previous three downs, allowing greater freedom from your playbook.

It changes the entire complexion of the game.

Look, there is no easy way to beat an offense like the Saints. The NFL has gone yardage and point mad and maybe an old-school defense like the 49ers is the answer. If not, it's time to give up on the old thinking that took root in the three yards and a cloud of dust era. Or you can keep trying the same thing and expect Brees to cool off.

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